The deadly crash of a World War II-era bomber in Connecticut on Wednesday has triggered a polarizing debate, as history buffs eager to check off a bucket-list wish – flying aboard a vintage aircraft like the kind that brought Nazi Germany to its knees – are pitted against concerned politicians and others questioning if such flights are safe and whether the planes should continue soaring through the air at all.
"These aircraft are reminders about the greatness of the World War II generation, they are a great part of history. Whether they are safe to fly is another question," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Fox News on Wednesday in Windsor Locks, where the crash occurred. "And that's the question that we need to ask before people board them for the experience of flying, which is a great experience. But at the same time we need to make sure they are safe, reliable."
The retired, civilian-registered plane involved in Wednesday's fiery accident was associated with the Collings Foundation, an educational group that brought its Wings of Freedom vintage aircraft display to the airport this week, according to Connecticut officials.
The now vintage bombers – which are 74 feet long, with a wingspan of 104 feet – were used in daylight bombing raids against Germany during the war.
The Collings Foundation said the B-17 that went down in Connecticut was built in 1945, too late to see combat. The same aircraft, however, was also involved in a crash in 1987 at an air show near Pittsburgh that injured several people, according to the group. The bomber was hit by a severe crosswind as it touched down and overshot the runway before plunging down a hill. It was later repaired.
"I am deeply concerned that these vintage aircraft, decades old, some of them having been involved in crashes before, are still flying," Blumenthal told Fox News. "Until we know exactly what caused this crash, a major tragedy, whether it was a defect in the machine or some problem with maintenance or flying. There should be very serious scrutiny over these planes before they're allowed back in the air."
The Boeing B-17 bomber – also known as a Flying Fortress – is one of the most celebrated Allied planes of World War II and was used to ferry history buffs and aircraft enthusiasts on short flights where they are able to explore the interior. The Collings Foundation had brought several planes to Bradley Airport this week, offering rides on the B-17 for $400. Besides the bomber, the group planned to have two World War II fighter planes and three bombers at the airport through Thursday.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference on Thursday that the agency has investigated 21 accidents involving World War II-era bombers since 1982, of which there were 23 fatalities reported. Three of those were B-17G's. Those numbers don't include Wednesday's crash.
"We have to look at that as part of our investigation," she said in reference to the safety of the bombers at a news conference Thursday.
'A BIG RISK FOR PASSENGERS'
Those who step on board the vintage aircraft may not know or realize the unique risks that come with the planes that were never intended to be used for civilian tour flights, according to Michael Slack a former NASA engineer, a licensed pilot and aviation attorney with Slack Davis Sanger.
"We have a real disconnect between original purpose and the contemporary purpose," Slack said Thursday.
Slack, who owns his own World War II-era plane, a North American T-6 Texan trainer, told Fox News that aircraft such as the B-17 face "significant" maintenance challenges with the older engine and hydraulic systems not using original manufactured, but fabricated, parts in order to keep flying.
The biggest risk for passengers on such vintage aircraft is a crash-landing or off-airport landing, according to Slack, due to the possibility of post-impact fires because of how the aircraft's fuel tanks are structured and the "lack of crashworthy design." The aircraft's older fuel compartment system is not designed for modern standards, which leaves those on board, particularly at risk if there is a rupture that allows the "volatile" fuel to disperse, according to Slack.
"Anything that breaches those tanks can result in a very serious fire," he told Fox News.
Slack is currently handling a case on behalf of a passenger who sustained serious burns during a Commemorative Air Force C-47 (DC-3) crash in July 2018 in Burnet, Texas. The aircraft – a fixed-wing, propeller-driven airliner from the 1930s and 1940s – veered off the runway and caught fire at Burnet Municipal Airport, injuring many passengers.
"The risk of post-impact fires. It's very real, one of the things that don't get talked about," he said.
In Connecticut, Public Safety Commissioner James Rovella said hours after the crash that some of those on board were burned, and “the victims are very difficult to identify.”
The aircraft that crashed Thursday was one of only 10 B-17s actively flying. Slack told Fox News that in the older aircraft, the possibility of retrofitting the tanks would be "prohibitively expensive" and would require a custom fuel bladder arrangement that would be a "significant expenditure" for groups who fly the aircraft to take on.
Slack said the incident on Thursday has highlighted "special risk that people are exposed to" on the bombers that were never intended to be a transport aircraft.
"If you're going to continue to operate these aircraft, operate them with an essential crew and don't take passengers," he told Fox News.
'I WOULD HATE TO SEE THESE FLIGHTS STOP'
For those that get to step onboard the vintage aircraft and go along for a flight, the experience is described as "surreal."
"It was just an incredible feeling," Thomas Touw from San Francisco told Fox News on Thursday.
Touw, who went aboard a roughly 30-minute flight on the same aircraft that crashed Wednesday with a group of 10 people a few years ago while it was on tour in San Diego, said being on the aircraft was a reminder of what military crews went through at the height of the war, flying in an aircraft with a thin aluminum skin. It was an experience he applied to his own time in the Army.
"You don't get a sense of how vulnerable these crews were unless you fly in that aircraft," he told Fox News.
Before passengers take flight, Touw said that crews give guests a briefing about the rules. Passengers are then seated against a wall of the aircraft and brace themselves until it it takes off. Once the plane is airborne, passengers are able to wander around the "compartmented" interior. For Touw, the highlight was the aircraft's glass nose which he said was "beautiful."
"I would hate to see these flights stop," he told Fox News. "It's such an amazing visceral piece of history that you cannot experience in any other way."
Slack told Fox News that B-17's are typically given a limited airworthiness certification that comes with limitations because it is a converted aircraft. Touw said as long as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to certify the aircraft to fly and they go through a "rigorous inspection process," that others should be able to experience a few minutes of history.
"Tragedies happen," he told Fox News. "It doesn't mean you need to change everything. You just need to look at ways to make it better."
'VERY WELL TRAINED PILOT'
Connecticut State Police identified the pilot in Wednesday's accident as 75-year-old Ernest ‘Mac’ McCauley, who a retired Collings Foundation Pilot described as having extensive experience.
"I believe he's probably the highest B-17 Pilot out there," David Prescott told FOX61, referring to time spent flying the aircraft. "In addition to being an airline pilot, he was a very, very well trained pilot with a very high degree of safety training on a regular basis."
Prescott emphasized passengers should not be scared of taking similar flight tours despite what happened this week.
"The Collings Foundation has a very extensive safety program," said Prescott. "They have a maintenance crew that travels with the planes."
The Collings Foundation did not respond to a request for comment by Fox News regarding Blumenthal's comments, but in a statement posted to its website said its flight team is "fully cooperating with officials to determine the cause of the crash of the B-17 Flying Fortress and will comment further when details become known."
"Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were on that flight and we will be forever grateful to the heroic efforts of the first responders at Bradley," the group said.
The NTSB sent a team of 10 to investigate the cause of the crash. Blumenthal told Fox News on Wednesday officials told him they were going to do a "full investigation" and he was going to "make it my business" to look into how the vintage aircraft are overseen, whether they are used for sightseeing or tourism. He said that, because of the need for older parts that are "difficult to find," in addition to the complexities in operating the vintage planes, "stronger oversight" should be sought.
"They endanger not just people who are passengers, or are flying them, but also bystanders on the ground," Blumenthal told Fox News. “If these aircraft continue to be flown, if they are going to avoid being grounded, there needs to be a stronger regiment of scrutiny and oversight for the vintage airplane.”
Fox News' Rob DiRienzo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.